Some observations

The program of study for this program is in full swing now. For the first eight days of the program we go to school at the Korea University, which was the first university in the country founded by Koreans. Established in 1905, it is now the most prestigious university in the country, and it has the support of the major Korean industries. There’s the LG Hall, Samsung Hall, for example. The campus is beautiful — built on a hill, nicely designed buildings, great green space; we’re lucky to spend time here.

Yesterday was the first day, and for each academic day we have three sessions of 90 minutes each. There will be 8 academic days, and 24 lectures in total. The sessions are lectures by academic experts, most of whom teach at universities. Yesterday’s topics were really interesting: Korean language; Korean Art History; and Korean Symbols, Values & Norms. It was a terrific way to start our study because the conversation throughout the day was about Korean culture. Yesterday was a great story-telling day. The art history professor told a great story to start her lecture. She was born in Korea but grew up on 4 different continents, and ultimately was in middle school in the US. She credited her social studies teacher, who, by demonstrating what it meant to be American by reading Emerson, Twain, & Baldwin, helped her begin to understand what it meant to be Korean. She chose to pursue art history because it helped her understand what it meant to be Korean. Her lecture was wonderful.

Today’s topics were about Korean economics, population growth, and “The North Korean Problem.” The last lecture on the North Korean problem was excellent. It was given by a professor who is also an “Expert Adviser”  to the South Korean Prime Minister. His lecture presented us with the various tactics that have been used to approach North Korea about its nuclear weapons program, and the difficulties therein. His lecture prompted the most questions from us, which were about the strategies used to engage the PRK, the stakeholders and long-term interests that each nation involved in the 6 Party Talks has. I was energized, and I had to remind myself that we were talking about an issue that could result in massive death and destruction if it goes poorly. That took me down a few pegs.

After the lectures we were wisked away to the National Museum of Korea, which houses the National Treasures of Korea, as well as around 250,000 other artifacts. It’s an unbelievable physical space — the museum has been open in its current building for only five years (the museum has existed for over a century) and I can’t remember another art/culture museum that even is close to the size and scope of this place. We were there for two hours and got a docent-led tour of 15 important artifacts. She said if we took in the entire collection that is on display it would take two full days. We looked mostly at artifacts native to Korea: Buddha statues, a royal pagoda, burial crowns and impressive gold jewelry, glassware that is believed to have come via the Silk Road from Rome, and elaborate incense burners that display Taoist and Buddhist motifs. My favorite artifact is the “Pensive Bodhisattva” which is a wonderful sculpture of devotion and technical skill. I wished I had my students there to witness it in person. It was quite moving.

We’ve been moving around a lot via bus, subway, and on foot, so I’ve had some time to make various observations about the city. I’ll note a few of them here, and these are in relation to my visit here when I was 16.

I remember from 1992 that all of the cars in Seoul were black or dark blue Hyundai sedans. I noted at the time that I’d never seen so many Hyundais because they were relatively new to the US market. Today, there are very few dark colored cars by comparison. There are white cars, red cars, blue cars, and orange taxis. Hyundai cars are all over the place, but so are Volkswagon, Mini Coopers, BMWs, and Lexus. It might sound like a trival thing if you haven’t been here, but the point is that the city seems more alive, more diverse than it did when I was here before.

Another difference I remember is from what is on the television. I have vivid memories of watching MTV from Hong Kong in 1992. Now MTV doesn’t exist in Korea. The VJs (Video Jockeys — remember them?) were broadcasting truly international videos — first a western pop or rock song, then a Hindi dance tune. My brother and I howled at the Hindi dance videos and preferred the MTV that gave you news from Jakarta and Bangkok to what was available States-side. MTV  has been replaced by K Pop, which is Korean pop music. It’s a phenomenon that is worth at least a momentary glance, if you’re not familiar with it. K Pop is extraordinarily popular among middle school aged Koreans. In short it is pop music, performed by young, hip, usually boy singing groups. Boy bands in the US and the UK have been around for sometime, so it’s not like this is a new thing, but what makes K Pop notable in my opinion is the production value. Watching a live performance on T.V. or Youtube is best, and you only need to watch three or so songs to get the idea of what the genre looks like. I am really impressed by the coordination of the music and dancing, the costumes, and the on-stage presence by the performers who are young and probably have phalanxes of handlers, trainers, designers, and producers to create what you see, but it’s worth it. Several of the teachers in this program work in middle schools or junior high schools, and most of them have been instructed (not asked) by their students to bring back K Pop music. To “listen” to the music misses what makes it significant. You really need to watch it in my opinion, because it is definitely more a visual performance than a musical experience. Watch with an eye for the details and you will absolutely find it fulfilling. You even like it (I won’t tell!). Check out this link for a taste.

I’ll sign off here for now. Tomorrow we’re going to the theatre and heavy rains are forecast. I can’t wait!

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